User login

The Ho Ho Holidays

Holidays are hard on everybody. Neuro-typical people find them just as stressful as the person on the Autism spectrum, albeit for very different reasons. When it comes to Christmas, most people are stressing about digging out of debt in the new year, finding the right gift, having to drive in a snowstorm to get to Aunt Mildred’s house for Christmas dinner, and listening to Uncle Jerry’s story about having his bunion removed for the tenth time. The person on the spectrum is more concerned with the fact that his or her routine is totally thrown out the window. The one thing that keeps this kid from going over the edge is getting to wake up everyday at 8 am and watching a Thomas video in his Spiderman pajamas while eating pop-tarts and chocolate milk. Now, you expect this child, who’s hanging on to this life by his fingernails, to pack up his stuff, drive cross-country, and live by some arbitrary schedule set by Aunt Mildred. I’m sure you can guess how this is going to end up. Sure, you can do all the social stories you want, take photographs until your battery runs out—but you’ve still got a kid dealing with an enormous amount of stress and throwing in fruit cake isn’t gonna help the situation.

Holidays are times for families to come together and sometimes see each other this one time a year. There are often crowds of people, even in a small family, that are loud and unpredictable. It also doesn’t help that everyone, everyone, is telling you that little Johnny’s just fine, he’s just a boy, and spanking him might just ‘put him right’. Then it’s time for dinner and everyone assumes that your child is getting no nutrition whatsoever because he flat-out refuses to eat anything that’s offered and can’t even be persuaded to sit at the table. This doesn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Christmas and all the decorations, songs, smells, and why in the name of all that is holy did dad just put a tree in the living room. It’s basically the world turned upside down for your child. Don’t even get me started on the animatronic Santa that moves its arms up and down saying ‘ho, ho, ho’ everywhere you go. Or better yet, the wonderful bell ringing campaigns at every store that send your auditory defensive child into the upper atmosphere.

Unfortunately, your little one can’t just ‘grin and bear it’ till the holidays are over. If it were just one day, I’d say maybe that could happen. However, since the Christmas shopping season basically starts earlier and earlier every year till it’s practically a several month event, parents of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder have got to plan, plan, plan. The very best option is for everyone to come to your house in small groups reading from important cue cards as to how to approach your child but I don’t see that happening in any family anytime soon.

So here are some my suggestions to dealing with holidays from Christmas to Arbor Day. Young children like things they can put in their hands and manipulate. Instead of buying the ceramic Santa that sits in the china cabinet, try buying stuffed animal-like holiday décor. This, of course, applies to all the holidays such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentines, St. Patrick’s, and so on. Stores are now selling these stuffed animal-like decorations that are filled with tiny micro beads that feel really cool when you squeeze them. Often, the outsides of this holiday décor are plush, velvety, or smooth which happens to be a nice sensory experience for kids.

We hear all the time that the best thing we can do is to read to our children. Well, the hard part about some young children on the Autism spectrum is that they won’t or can’t sit still long enough to read a story. Sometimes the subject is just not interesting to them. Sometimes the drawings in the book are too abstract. Whatever the reason, reading with your young child is often difficult. I remember practically running after Ewan trying to read to him at the same time. That wasn’t very productive. Finally, we when we purchased the giant foam bean bag for our living room, Ewan was able to play around on that and then sit in the middle of that for story time. Admittedly, it helps that his younger brother LOVES story time and will sit for stories at any point throughout the day. It’s almost like Ewan didn’t even think of it, until he watched his brother do it. Regardless, the first books that Ewan and his brother both would be interested in and pick up were the ones with big, real photos in them. The boys also like to read the same stories over and over—I on the other hand like to mix things up. But, as Ewan was exposed to the same story again and again, he would jump in and fill in the blanks when I would pause. Now his brother does the same thing.

So why all the talk about reading? There are a lot of stories about holidays and seasons out nowadays that either use real photos, or they have some type of touch and feel aspect to them. Dorling Kindersley makes a wonderful series of Touch and Feel books that cover quite a few concepts including holidays (the Christmas one has shiny paper and other decorations a child might see). Reading stories out loud might be a way to talk about the upcoming holidays in a way a young child might understand. You can also make your own book with photos from your last Christmas or other holiday, and keep a little back from each holiday like wrapping paper or small decorations that can be added to the scrapbook. If your child has a hard time sitting for story time though, you may want to try some sensory toys to calm and organize your child’s system long enough to get through the story.

Don’t forget that your child’s therapists can ALL work on holiday goals together with you. I remember when Ewan was a little over 2, we really, really wanted Ewan to go trick or treating with us. Our oldest child was really looking forward to it and we wanted to go as a family. Ewan’s costume though was something we really had to think about beforehand. We knew he wouldn’t tolerate a store bought costume that itched, that was too tight, or heaven forbid, came with some type of mask. So we thought what might work best was something comfortable and functional that was also a ‘costume’. Ewan went as the Incredible Hulk that year. I took green sweatpants and used double sided tape to stick together a soft t-shirt and the sweatshirt and for the pants, a soft pair of purple shorts was taped to the outside of the pants. I then stuffed toilet paper in between the t-shirt and sweatshirt and between the sweatpants and the shorts to make him look ‘muscular’. I asked our OT to work with face paint with Ewan for several weeks prior to Halloween so that we could paint his face green. We also practiced ‘trick or treating’ and playing in the dark with flashlights. When the night came, there were some bumps in the road, but for the most part he did GREAT and had lots of FUN because he was prepared.

My parting advice for holidays is to prepare, plan, and practice. You can’t control the other people at holiday events but you can control what your child is exposed to and how he or she is exposed. Try to understand the need to keep the same routine even during the holidays or try to change as few things as possible. Explain everything. Don’t assume that your child doesn’t care or won’t understand anyway. Always explain to your child in words, photographs, and stories what to expect from each and every holiday in terms of what they may see, hear, smell, or eat because each holiday is DIFFERENT. Oh, and don’t forget to make it FUN!